Aston Villa lost in the play-off final yesterday, 1-0 to Fulham, and will face another season in the Championship. Five of Steve Bruce’s final starting XI don’t have a Villa contract next season, and of that quintet, only one can be described as an even remotely likely returnee for the Claret and Blues next season. That’s because Villa are in a particularly poor position against Financial Fair Play requirements next year, the magnitude of which will only become more visible as the summer rolls along.
Over the next couple months, Dr. Tony Xia, Keith Wyness and the rest of the leadership at B6 will make a series of decisions that will shape the path forward for the club. The idea, then, is that this will serve as a rough step-by-step guide for Villa fans heading into the offseason and the considerations at play.
Step 1: Evaluate the magnitude of the FFP mess
This should already be completed, and the board will know the extent to which Villa need to sell to balance the books heading into next season. Wyness has before noted that, if promotion weren’t won, this upcoming season would be “challenging” with respect to FFP, and the Telegraph called it an impending “financial disaster” yesterday, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
The biggest challenges for Villa as it pertains to FFP compliance are:
- The parachute payment will drop from around £33 million to around £14 million
- The maximum allowable loss over the three-year window will drop from £61 million to £39 million
Both those things happening at the same time are particularly problematic, and are a big part of why Villa are almost certainly going to need to bring in significant transfer revenue this summer. There are a lot of complexities around FFP, and to reduce it to a simple transfer revenue target ignores the affect that a player’s depreciated value on the books (and upcoming depreciation expense) has on the figures, but the truth is that Villa are probably going to need to raise a lot of money.
The other thing to evaluate is any prospective windfall could get off sell-on fees for former Villa players, most notably Adama Traoré and Jordan Veretout. It’s widely believed that Villa have a sell-on fee for Adama, who moved from Villa to Middlesbrough two years ago, while the BBC’s Pat Murphy reported there was a “significant” sell-on clause in the transfer Veretout was set to take last summer to Saint-Étienne. Of course, the midfielder went to Fiorentina, but given Dr. Tony blasted Étienne on Twitter for a low-ball offer, logic would dictate Villa could have gotten a similar clause in the Fiorentina transfer that did go through. Any sell-on fee will have a significant impact in the amount of transfer revenue Villa need to generate this summer.
Step 2: Evaluate player value
Honestly, Villa’s biggest problem is that they just don’t have many players who are particularly valuable in the transfer market. Scott Hogan, Ross McCormack and Jonathan Kodjia were all big-money signings, but it’s hard to see any of them fetching more than £7 million given their relative performance- or injury-based concerns. Albert Adomah started the year in fine form, but he’s a 30-year-old who finished the season out of form and has effectively never played in the Premier League. That type of situation runs wild throughout the club.
James Chester and Jack Grealish, however, are two players whose value has never been higher. Chester has been fantastic since joining Villa, and given he’s still the right side of 30, could probably generate interest from top-flight clubs. Grealish is clearly extremely valuable and is playing the best football of his career. Either could generate a huge transfer fee, and either could be replaced with a high-quality Championship player for much less than that fee.
Yet at the same time, they’re probably the two key returning players in the team. Letting go of them could mean closing the promotion window pretty early — which, hey, about that…
Step 3: Decide on a path forward
Two years ago, Dr. Tony took over at Villa Park and opted for a quick turnaround, not a full rebuild. A similar decision awaits him this summer.
As I see it, Villa effectively have three pathways they can pursue:
- Villa can try to keep as much as the current senior team around as possible and focus on contending for promotion next season. This approach would see the club looking to sell primarily fringe and youth players to achieve compliance in order to keep veteran players at Villa. An alternative to this approach would be to sell Grealish, and use the funds to cover most of the FFP gap, keeping the lion’s share of the senior squad intact.
- Villa can commit to a full rebuild and get value for players like Adomah and Chester before they’re past their prime. This approach would see the club hang onto their young players, but probably resign themselves to a 2018–19 campaign that would be expected to be outside the promotion mix.
- Villa can hedge between the two tactics, promoting youth players like André Green, Keinan Davis, Callum O’Hare, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Jake Doyle-Hayes to proper first-team roles while selling some current first-team guys to make FFP compliance work. Villa would likely look to sell a couple starters under this scenario, but would try to keep Chester and Grealish at the club.
Step 4: Evaluate the manager
I think Steve Bruce’s performance this season could be described as a mixed bag. He’s done incredibly well to turn around the once-toxic Villa dressing room, and even his biggest detractors must admit that he’s gotten incredible football out of Jack Grealish. Yet at the same time, his tactics have left a lot to be desired, and that was on full display at Wembley on Saturday. Villa entered the season with one of the clear top four squads in the division, but haven’t won promotion. That’s unfortunate.
That said, the decision on who manages Villa next season should be decided in a prospective manner, not a retrospective one. If the Claret and Blues try to build a veteran-led team next season to win promotion to the Premier League, I think Bruce should get another go. If a full rebuild is on the cards, he’s not the man for it — that requires a manager with a solid, attacking tactical approach (similar to the one Slaviša Jokanović employed at Fulham). If Villa hedge, it’s hard to say what the right call is.
Regardless, the approach should dictate next season’s manager. While Villa could certainly improve at the position, is it worth taking the risk that the club actually take a step back?
Step 5: Sell who you want to sell (hopefully)
Alright, this one’s pretty straightforward, at least in theory. This is the part Villa have little to no control over — sure, they may want to offload Ross McCormack, but will anyone take him? We’ve seen this problem with Micah Richards over the last two seasons (yes, he’s still somehow at the club), and we could see it this summer with a whole host of players. The other side is that Villa have a lot of young or relatively young players that might not have a great market; Carles Gil’s permanent move to Deportivo La Coruña is off after that side were relegated from Spain’s top flight this season, and it’s hard to see anyone spending more than a few thousand quid to sign him right now. Pierluigi Gollini has barely played at Atalanta — will another Serie A side move for him permanently on potential? If not, it’s hard to see any Serie B side offering a remotely significant transfer fee. Aaron Tshibola is another one, too; the defensive midfielder’s loan to a Milton Keynes side that were relegated from League One was a complete disaster. He did better at Kilmarnock up in Scotland, but Killie are unlikely to have any significant funds.
It’s one thing to ID who you want to get rid of, but it’s another thing to actually be able to move them on.
Step 6: Sign a couple players on free transfers
If nothing else, Villa are likely to at least need a centre back and a goalkeeper this summer. They should look to the Bosman or loan markets to accomplish these tasks. Jed Steer and Tommy Elphick are players under contract who could step into the starting roles vacated by Sam Johnstone and John Terry, but both Mark Bunn and Chris Samba are out of contract, too. There needs to be at least some movement at these positions to ensure adequate depth, even if it means selling a more valuable, Henri Lansbury-type player to fund it.
Step 7: Show up in August and do it all over again
This is the thing that’s wonderful about football: No matter how awful or gut-wrenching the previous season was (and this one ended tough), when that first match day in August shows up, we greet it with an outsize amount of anticipation and expectation. If Villa have a promotion-contending team again next season, we’ll hopefully be able to enjoy the ride again. If Villa are promoting youth, we’ll hopefully be able to enjoy seeing some of our club’s own homegrown talent developing for the first-team squad.
And hey, this is supposed to be fun. I can’t wait to bang five past Wigan on the opening weekend of the season in front of a beautiful Villa Park crowd.